The ceiling is the roof, Michael Jordan informed the Smith Center crowd at halftime. It may be easier for semioticians to figure out what exactly MJ’s malaprop meant than it will be for anyone else to separate North Carolina and Duke, two teams a total of one point apart after splitting their two regular-season meetings.
Fortunately, they’re on conflicting flight paths toward Friday night’s first ACC semifinal, if both advance in Brooklyn. This feels like the kind of season that needs a third meeting, after two games decided by missed free throws and extraordinary individual performances. It might just get it.
This game had everything: 23 lead changes, a Grayson Allen technical foul for elbowing Brandon Robinson, Roy Williams shushing his own student section for an “overrated” chant directed at Duke freshman Harry Giles and Joel Berry’s second annual recognition that the calendar has changed from February to March. Just as Jayson Tatum took over the second half in Duke’s win in Durham, Berry was the difference Saturday night, with 19 of his 28 in the first half to outduel Luke Kennard’s 28 in a 90-83 win.
A year after Berry emerged as North Carolina’s best player in the postseason, it felt like he was getting a headstart on it this time around.
“Just a little bit,” Berry said.
It wasn’t just Berry and Kennard. Justin Jackson, after starting 0-for-6 from 3-point range, converted his seventh try to give North Carolina the lead for good, then passed out of a double team to Isaiah Hicks for an easy basket on the next possession. Hicks, who missed the first meeting with a hamstring injury, had 21 points in the rematch and was one of eight different players in double figures, even if Berry stole the show.
“(Berry) is capable of amazing,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “There were a few players on the court who are capable of amazing.”
There was a lot of that in both games this season. Last season, too. Duke pulled the upset in Chapel Hill a year ago even after Matt Jones’ ankle injury left the Blue Devils down to six players; North Carolina’s seniors won in Cameron for the first time in the return game, clinching the regular-season title in the process.
The first meeting this season turned on Berry missing the front end of a one-and-one, followed by a Tatum 3-pointer at the other end and another Berry miss. This one turned on Allen missing a pair of free throws that would have made it a two-point game with two minutes to go, Berry hitting a pull-up jumper in Allen’s face before the misses and banging one off the glass immediately after.
Amid all the excellence, those misses made the difference. When so much is happening at such a high level, it’s the flaws that catch the light.
“You saw a game where a lot of guys played well. That’s it,” Krzyzewski said. “Sometimes it’s not nuclear science here. It’s that easy.”
North Carolina made it look easy this season, even if the Tar Heels avoided some of the ACC’s best teams on the road. They were still two games better than anyone else and had the outright regular-season title secured for the second straight year even before tipoff Saturday, which is how Kennedy Meeks ended up with a net around his neck after the game.
“A lot of guys have been here before, and we wanted to do this again, and we did,” North Carolina’s Theo Pinson said. “Now, we have to go take care of business in the ACC tournament.”
Duke still needed a win not only to extend its streak in Chapel Hill to three games but avoid a Wednesday appearance in Brooklyn. The Blue Devils are instead the fifth seed, facing the N.C. State-Clemson winner, with Louisville awaiting in the quarterfinals. And then, if the cosmic tumblers click into place, North Carolina would await Friday night after facing the Syracuse-Miami winner Thursday.
It just feels like these teams deserve another meeting. They’ve earned it. We all have. It’s not nuclear science, not when the ceiling is the roof.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock